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Historic craft looks ahead

Despite owner’s assurances, Amesbury silversmiths fear company is in decline as market dwindles and prices rise

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2010

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AMESBURY — Patriot and silversmith Paul Revere would have felt at home at Old Newbury Crafters, a tiny silverware operation in the basement of an old mill building here. But time and technology have taken a toll on the trade, which has not changed much in centuries, and the company’s future is tenuous.

The hand wrought silver industry began to decline decades ago with the advent of mass-produced, machine-made silverware.

In recent years, it has been hurt further by the skyrocketing price of silver and the fading popularity of silverware as a wedding gift. Old Newbury, which was founded in 1915 and once had more than two dozen workers, is down to just a few employees. To keep their craft alive, they need to train new artisans. But time is running out.

Bob Lapham, one of two remaining silversmiths (the company also employs an office manager and two “finishers’’), wants to retire in a year, when he turns 65. He has been a silversmith for 47 years, since graduating from Newburyport High School.

In his early years with the only employer he has even known, Lapham saw plenty of opportunity. Then-owner Swift Barnes built the company from a family shop into an internationally recognized name. Although the company made jewelry for a time and can still work with pewter, its signature product is flatware.

At its height of productivity, Old Newbury had accounts with Shreve, Crump & Low, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and Gump’s San Francisco. Blair House in Washington, D.C. — the presidential guest quarters — has Old Newbury silverware, and the company once sold some to actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Lapham remembers a visit he and fellow silversmith Geoff Blake, 63, made years ago to an upscale retailer on Madison Avenue in New York.

“To go in and see a wall covered with things we make, that was wonderful,’’ Lapham said.

Today, the craftsmen have plenty of downtime. Blake turns to a pile of books on his workbench when there is nothing else to do. Old Newbury still has a few steady customers, including a member of the winemaking Gallo family, who orders a dozen pieces of silverware to celebrate the birth of each grandchild. But it is not enough, and the silversmiths say the current owner, renowned handbag designer Peter Dooney, has allowed the business to languish.

Lapham and Blake believe there is still a niche market for top-notch handmade silverware.

“With just a modest amount of promotion, he might be surprised how much we could sell,’’ Lapham said.

Dooney, speaking from Connecticut, acknowledges that Old Newbury has not been a priority.

It has “a really wonderful history,’’ said Dooney, who still pays the bills and salaries. “Unfortunately, I’ve been busy with my other businesses, and it’s been a little neglected.’’

When Dooney, cofounder of the high-end Connecticut accessories manufacturer Dooney & Bourke, bought the company in 1998, Lapham and his colleagues were optimistic.

The company had recently struggled through a period of turmoil, including a divisive vote to unionize, the departure of longtime owner Barnes, and the hiring of a manager who was eventually convicted of embezzlement.

Dooney’s arrival, they hoped, would restore some sense of stability. “I was thrilled, frankly,’’ says Lapham. “If you’re selling handbags for $650, you’ve got to know your stuff.’’

But after a couple of initial visits during negotiations with Barnes, the designer has not been back. Charlene Morin, the office manager and 14-year employee, said she often has a hard time contacting Dooney’s staff.

Dooney, who started Dooney & Bourke with Frederic Bourke in 1975, first encountered Old Newbury flatware during a summer job as a polisher in a high-end Greenwich, Conn., store.

Swift Barnes, now in his 90s and living on Cape Cod, recalled doing a demonstration at the store. “There was this high school kid who was fascinated with my presentation,’’ he said. “Turns out to be Dooney.’’

For years, Old Newbury’s competition was limited to the late Porter Blanchard, a well-known California silversmith. Products produced by the Amesbury company, which was once based in Newburyport, were sought by collectors.

“Big companies can make thousands of something very well,’’ said Lapham. “But they can’t make one of anything.’’

On the wall behind the silversmiths’ work area hangs a wide variety of tarnished brass templates for forks, spoons, and knives. A large American flag hangs on the opposite wall near the “foot drop,’’ a heavy forging hammer operated by stepping down on, then releasing, a hanging loop of rope.

Beginning with a thin slab of metal that looks like a long stick of chewing gum, craftsmen hammer out a shape on an immaculately smooth anvil.

They heat the silver with a blowtorch and etch an outline into the metal.

For the bowl of a spoon, they use the foot drop.

After filing, the piece is given to a finisher for polishing.

An experienced silversmith can complete the process in about 40 minutes.

Blake, who grew up in Hampton, N.H., became interested in silversmithing while touring the company’s workshop with his mother in the 1950s.

“We had regular silver at home, in a Gorham pattern,’’ he said.

While serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, Blake wrote to Barnes, asking for a job. When he returned, he took an apprenticeship.

Today, with the focus solely on flatware, Old Newbury is fighting an uphill battle for survival, said Barnes. “I don’t think there’s anything [Dooney] could do, frankly’’ to save it, he said.

Dooney admits that finding people willing to learn an antiquated trade is challenging. Silver “is a little out of fashion now,’’ he said. “People don’t want the maintenance. As a wedding gift, it’s extravagant. Silver prices are up.’’

Still, he said he has “no intention of stopping’’ the business: “It’s a gem, but it kind of muddles along. We need to take a fresh look at preserving those skills.’’

But Lapham and Blake worry that Dooney’s renewed interest has come too late.

“It’s like, ‘Last to retire, shut the power down,’ ’’ said Lapham. “That’s where it’s headed.’’